What if Smoke was nothing more than a mild burning smell?
Smoke exposes itself, and lets you know there is a fire underneath. The location of the burning smell is much harder to decipher. Is it the microwave? Is it coming from outside? It lets you know that maybe it is time for one of those plug-in air fresheners.
If many of Tony Stewart’s critics get their way, NASCAR’s version of Smoke might be reduced to that mild burning smell. Since Stewart broke his leg in a sprint car crash last Monday in Iowa and eliminated himself from NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase contention, critics have been quick to jump on Stewart for his unsafe extra-curricular activities, for letting his employees and sponsors down at Stewart-Haas Racing, and for losing millions by not qualifying his team for the playoffs. ESPN’s David Newton, in particular, wrote the I-told-you-so column of the century on Tuesday.
And now many people are asking Stewart to re-evaluate his priorities, or basically to stop racing on Monday-Saturday, and stick to Sunday.
Be careful what you wish for.
Those people have argued that the three-time champion is one of the top personalities in the series, one of the most popular drivers, and now the Chase won’t be the same without him. They’re right, but I think they forgot how Smoke built his reputation in the first place. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have summed up Stewart best on Friday.
“When we talk about personalities and how that drives the sport, he’s definitely the top of the list as one of the more important ones and the more influential ones that sort of drive the needle,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that he’s got to do what makes him happy, and that’s why you like him. That’s where the appeal is with Tony. I think he’s a blue-collar racer’s racer.
“He can get down on the ground level, and he might be the owner of the Cup team and owner of a race track (and a) championship driver, but he can get down in the dirt and get his hands dirty and get behind the wheel of a sprint car and win anywhere in the country on any night. I think that’s part of the appeal with him is that he’s that kind of guy that can do that.”
Unlike Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. falls into line with the majority of drivers in the series, who very rarely race anything outside of a Sprint Cup car, except to occasionally dabble in the Nationwide Series. Junior used to race in Nationwide more regularly and also got into sports car racing at one point, but after he crashed at Sonoma in 2004 in his Chevrolet Corvette and was left strapped inside a burning car, his perspective changed.
The Tony Stewart’s of the racing world — those who are willing to race in lower-tier series’ for fun —are becoming more and more rare. Kyle Busch has a similar mentality, but even he seems to be more cautious these days at the request of Joe Gibbs Racing. Team owners at the top levels of motorsports don’t want their drivers putting themselves at risk, and sponsors — who pour absurd amounts of money into these teams — expect the star they are sponsoring to be there every week.
Roger Penske must have been pulling out the hair he has left on Friday when Helio Castroneves — the current IndyCar point leader in the midst of the best season of his career — lost the brakes in his stock car and crashed hard preparing for a race in Brazil. What was running through Joe Gibbs’ mind when he learned Denny Hamlin tore his ACL playing pick-up basketball before the 2010 season?
Many drivers’ contracts stipulate what they can and can’t do outside of racing Sprint Cup. Can they walk on sidewalks with cracks in them, or is there a chance the driver might get stuck?
So many drivers spend their free time on the golf course. Somebody hold Kevin Harvick’s hand if he hits into a sand trap and has to step in. Other drivers spend their time lifting weights, riding bikes, and in Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne’s case, running triathlons. Stewart doesn’t fit that mold, and that’s part of his appeal. He prefers soda cookies and racing anything with a motor every night of the week.
And his contributions to short-track racing can’t be overlooked. Every time he shows up at a short track, he is the show. He’s not only helping the track with ticket sales, but he’s luring Sprint Cup fans to check out the great racing at the lower levels, and after he wins, inviting the folks at the lower levels who want more to tune in to the Sprint Cup race. I could go on and on about the importance of the Camping World Truck Series race he brought to Eldora, but the fan response to the race was enough.
NASCAR might be losing some this fall when Stewart isn’t a part of the playoffs, but Smoke’s appearances at tracks throughout the country have only bolstered NASCAR.
However long he is sidelined, his personality certainly will be missed. He’s about as complex as they come — caring, playful, honest, but with a temper that can flare up at any second and make him the biggest asshole you’ll ever meet.
We need more drivers like him.
“It’s troubled me to see some people giving him a hard time about his decision to race other vehicles,” Johnson said on Friday. “We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything. He has done so much for our sport.
“I personally praise him for all that he does for our sport, including driving sprint cars Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. It’s unfortunate that he got hurt. I hate that he’s injured, but I’d be bummed if he didn’t continue to race all during the week. That’s the Smoke we know and love.”
And for those who hope this sprint car crash changes him, be careful what you wish for.
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